Tag Archives: University of Chicago

Remaking the Museum for the 21st century

reviewLogoBlock-1Several months ago, Robert Fogarty asked if I wanted to contribute something to a special issue of The Antioch Review called “The Future of Museums.”

I did! It’s been years since I worked at the Royal Ontario Museum and this was my opportunity to see if anything I’d learned in my career as a consulting anthropologist might serve as a way to think about the future of these precious but challenged institutions.

Here are the opening paragraphs of the essay. (The full text may be found in the issue now on the stands [Vol. 74, No. 2, Spring 2016]. You should be able to buy the issue here soon.)

Remaking the Museum for the 21st Century: A Hakluytian opportunity
Grant McCracken

When I became the director of the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum, I was a young man and naïve on virtually every count. I see that now.

If anything could save me, it was that I was recently graduated from the University of Chicago’s Department of Anthropology. This program acted on its graduates like a seminary or a yeshiva. We entered the world with our eyes on fire. I thought I knew exactly what I was doing and, more particularly, what to do. My task, as I saw it, was to make North American culture course through the museum. It was to capture the contemporary world in archives and exhibits.

This was not quite the way the museum saw my task. The Institute (ICC) was an expedient designed to address the Museum’s (ROM) most pressing problem. The membership was dying. The average age was 60-something. Once a great center of life in Toronto and Canada, the ROM needed institutional rescue. Broaden the audience, that was the thing. But broaden the idea of culture? If you must, but really, on second thought, please don’t. The ROM was as ambivalent as I was naïve.

In the intervening 25 years, my career has taken me out of the museum and then out of the academic world altogether. This essay represents an elliptical return, a fly-by that enables me to bring things learned in the “deep space” of the consulting world to bear on the museum world that has in some ways always remained my sun.

The news from this perspective is both grim and heartening. Let’s start with grim.

My argument is that some museums might wish to turn their powers of observation on the future. They could make themselves a little like Richard Hakluyt. Hakluyt (1552-1616, pronounced “hak-loot” and “hak-light”) was an Elizabethan chaplain, a private secretary, and a deeply curious man who applied himself to a particular task: knowing everything one could know about the new world and how to get there.

Here’s the nub, or a nub, of the essay:

And this is where the museum comes in. The museum could make itself a center for gathering intelligence, quizzing explorers, assembling reports, and collecting maps. It could be the place people go to see the future and more specifically their organization’s future. It could build a system of knowledge about the future where others are now “spectacularly casual.” The museum has a Hakluytian opportunity.

Making systems of knowledge is the museum’s traditional brief. To be sure, the Hakluytian system doesn’t look much like the Victorian one. But then the Victorian mandate is well in hand. Our knowledge of natural history, while incomplete, is extensive and intensive. So is our grasp of human cultures and especially their material cultures. I don’t believe the museum world has ever identified these as the only systems of knowledge that matter. We could embrace a post-Victorian mandate and go a step forward. Two steps actually. The first of these is to build a systematic understanding of contemporary culture. The second is to make a window on possible futures, staffed by smart people and furnished with good ideas.

My Tribe Is an Unsophisticated People

turnbull-obit-articleLargeThis is a photograph of Sara Little Turnbull (1917–2015). Sara was an designer and anthropologist. In 1988 she founded, and for 18 years she ran, the Process of Change Laboratory for Innovation and Design at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

I like this photo for a couple of reasons. Sara was caught at her desk, mid-task, mid-thought. She senses the camera and gives it a knowing look. What’s maybe most striking is her clothing. Ever so fashionable. Ever so anti-anthropological.

My tribe dresses badly. Jeans. It takes a lot of denim to clothe the field. We don’t ever dress up. The idea appears to be to dress as far down as possible without provoking the suspicion of vagrancy. When formal clothing is called for the anthropologist sometimes resorts to the clothing of the culture they study. Put it this way, no one ever looks like Sara.

A lot of this is “badge of pride” stuff. Anthropologists dress badly to make a point. They want you to know that they reject the conventions of a mainstream society, that they care nothing for the bourgeois respectability, upward mobility, and/or conspicuous consumption that animate the dress codes of the rest of the world. It’s not a punk violation of code. It’s just a way of saying “Look, we’re out.”

This strategy is not without it’s costs. As Marshall Sahlins, God’s gift to anthropology, used to say in his University of Chicago seminars, “every theory is a bargain with reality.” (By which we believed he meant, every theory buys some knowledge at the cost of other knowledge.) And so it is with every suit of clothing. It give you access to some parts of the world, but it denies you access to others.

This social immobility is not a bad thing if you are a nuclear scientist or a botanist. But it does matter if you are prepared to make claims to knowledge when it comes to your own culture, and anthropologists are never shy on this topic.

Anthropologists believe they know about a great deal about their own culture. But in point of fact, there are many worlds they do not know and cannot access, worlds of which they have scant personal knowledge and in which they have few personal contacts. Generally speaking, they don’t know anyone in the worlds of venture capital, advertising, graphic design, publishing, fashion, forecasting, strategy, philanthropy, art museums, professional sports, industrial design, user experience, startup capitalism, banking, branding, public relations, small business, big business, or politics. It’s a lot, the things anthropologist don’t know about their own culture.

Anjali Ramachandran recently heard Salman Rushdie speak in London and recalls he said something like,

“One thing I tell students is to try and get into as many different kinds of rooms to hear as many different kinds of conversations as possible. Because otherwise how will you find things to put in your books?”

Just so. Rushdie’s “many rooms” strategy is not embraced in anthropology. By and large, anthropologists encourage their students to stick to a small number of rooms where, by and large, they conduct the same conversation.

This is ironic not least because one of the field’s most recent and convincing contributions to the world beyond it’s own is actually a contemplation of the danger of living in a silo. Gillian Tett (PhD in social anthropology, University of Cambridge) recently published a book called The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers. This is a book about the compartmentalization of all organizations, but it might have been a study of the field of anthropology.

The further irony is that in its post-modern moment, anthropology claims to be especially, even exquisitely, self reflexive, but the sad thing is that it does ever seem to be reflexive on matters like this. Clifford Geertz used to say that much of anthropology is self confession. Too bad that’s no longer true.

Irony gives way to something less amusing when we see that this provincialism is not just self-imposed but enforced as a tribal obligation. Those who dare dress “up” or “well” or “fashionably” or, as we might say, “in a manner that maximizes cultural mobility” is scorned. As graduate students, we actually dared sneer at the elegant suits sported by Michael Silverstein. How dare he refuse this opportunity to tell the world how world-renouncing he was! There is something odd and a little grotesque about willing a provincialism of this kind and then continuing to insist on your right to make claims to knowledge.

Sara Little Turnbull knew better. She understood how many mansions are contained in the house of contemporary culture. She embraced the idea that anthropology was a process of participant observation and that we can’t understand our culture from the outside alone. Sara also understood that the few “ideas” that anthropology uses to account for this endlessly various data is a little like the people of Lilliput hoping to keep Gulliver in place on the beach with a couple of guy wires. Eventually the beast comes to. Sara could study contemporary culture because she didn’t underestimate it or constrain her rights of access.

This post is dedicated to Sara Little Turnbull who passed away September 4, 2015.

This post first appeared on Medium.

Photocredit: Center for Design Research

Mike Nichols, father of American improv

iu-2Mike Nichols died yesterday.  As my contribution to the memorial, here is the essay wrote about him in a book called Transformations. It describes his role in the creation of American improv.

Mike Nichols

(from McCracken, Grant. 2008. Transfomations. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.)

Mike Nichols is an American director of plays and movies, the latter including The Graduate (1967), Silkwood (1983), and The Birdcage (1996). He is married to Diane Sawyer, a journalist. He was feted at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, where his “lifetime achievement” in film was celebrated by 3000 people, including Richard Avedon, Itzhak Perlman and Barbara Walters. If popular culture in America has an aristocracy, Mike Nichols belongs to its titular class.   Three thousand people came to celebrate, but most were there in homage.

Nichols came to America as Igor Peschkowsky. He arrived from Berlin in 1939. He was 7, his brother was 3. They made the journey by sea alone. His father preceded him to New York City, his mother would follow 18 months later. In New York City, Mr. Peschkowsky turned the boys over to the uneven kindness of an English family. Nichols was now bereft of his native country, his native language, the company of his mother and father, and his family’s standing in Europe. “I was a zero. […] In every way that mattered, I was powerless.”1

Nichols endured the pains of adjustment, though he had fallen farther than most. His advantage, an eye for detail and ear for nuance, was itself a torment.

“The refugee ear is a sort of seismograph for how one is doing. […] A thousand tiny victories and defeats in an ordinary conversation.”

To make matters worse, a medical intervention in childhood had left him hairless so that he was obliged to wear a hat, or a wig, everywhere. Buck Henry, a childhood friend, remembers him “as far outside as an outsider can get.”2

Nichols was obliged to engage in immigrant improv, that essential shield with which newcomers protect themselves from the endless embarrassments of a new world. Any native knucklehead could needle and vex at whim. ‘Saratoga,’ says the knucklehead with that “but of course you must know this” air. Judging from the speaker, the conversation, and the tone of the challenge, Saratoga is a literary journal, a cherished brand of American root beer, or the train that travels between Los Angeles and San Francisco. (It is probably not an Aboriginal place name. That would be too easy.)

The family established itself. His father was a doctor. In time, prosperity and standing were modestly restored. Then more tragedy. His father died, his mother suffered chronic emotional difficulty, and the family descended into poverty and sometimes squalor. Nichols fashioned his own system of education (chiefly, popular theatre and classical literature) and found his way to the University of Chicago where he arrived, at 17, to a happy discovery. “Oh my God, look, there are others like me. There are other weirdoes.”

Nichols took to the theatre. The University of Chicago was loaded with talent: Paul Sills, Ed Asner, Severn Darden, Barbara Harris. He directed his first play and performed in several more. In one of them, his disguise was pierced. He was Jean the valet in a production of Strindberg’s Miss Julie. His role called for a working-class man, one of the few adaptations this Russian-German Jewish aristocratic American weirdo could not manage. He was found out by a woman in the audience, an “evil, hostile girl” staring at him from the front row. “[S]he knew it was shit.”3

What happened next is one of the “origin myths” of American culture. One day, Nichols saw his inquisitor waiting for a train in a railway station in Chicago. He approached her and asked, in a German accent, “May I sit down?” Elaine May replied, in accent, “if you wish.” The rest is, as they say, history. Nichols and May made a spy scenario out of thin air. Without benefit of introduction or social ceremony, and in spite of disastrous first impressions, they were now friends. It felt to them both, Nichols said later, that “we were safe from everyone else when we were with each other.”4

Certainly, it has the compactness, the telescopic redundancy, of an origin myth. The origin of American improv is an act of improv, first of the moment, then of the stage, then of popular culture. What Nichols and May did in the train station, they repeated at the University of Chicago, and then on the Dupont Show of the Month to an astonished America. The captive of Miss Julie and fixed theatre was released into the sheer creativity that was in any case his immigrant experience. And with improv, America finds its way into opportunities for new dynamism. The path to assimilation proves to be the steep upward ascent to wealth, glory and fame. Two people give themselves over to this single act of spontaneity and everything changes: the interaction, their relationship, their careers, and an important part of the career of contemporary culture.

In the middle moment, the world is charmed. Nichols and May are perfect, blinding. Touched by this creature, Nichols discovers new talent and the possibility of fame staggeringly beyond the acceptance he courted, a boy in a wig, a couple of years before. Elaine May is adored, pursued, protean in her creativity, charismatic on stage and off, larger than every occasion and every other companion, impatient with mortals, and terrible in her anger when this is provoked. (Pursued by two men making kissing sounds, May says, “tired of one another?” and when one of them responds, “Fuck you!” she turns on him and asks, “With what?” (Ovid would surely have wanted this for his compendium of transformations.)

And then, in the manner of some myths, it ended. Improv became formula. May wanted to keep inventing but, as Nichols tells us (in an act of greatness) he could not keep up with her and he began to lose his courage for risk-taking on stage. The improv, the act, and the relationship, die in succession. The actors are estranged. Nichols returns to the theatre, not to act, but, the ultimate retreat from improv, to direct. He has a period of madness in which he seeks to destroy the art that reflects his wealth and taste. He resurrects himself to make one or two good films but keeps his distance from sheer, untrammeled creativity, falling back on fixed and commercial theatre. Elaine May suffers a more spectacular destruction. She falls under the influence of a man manifestly her lesser, and directs him in a disastrously unsuccessful film: Ishtar (1987). This is shit: over-scripted, under-directed, wooden, Beatty-ish, and just not funny. The first creatures to enter Chicago improv had fallen back to earth.5

1 Lahr, John. 2000. Making it Real: Mike Nichol’s improvised life. The New Yorker. February 21 and 28: 196-214, p. 198.

2 Lahr, John. 2000. Making it Real: Mike Nichol’s improvised life. The New Yorker. February 21 and 28: 196-214, pp. 202.

3 Sweet, Jeffrey. 1978. Something Wonderful Right Away: an oral history of the Second City and the Compass players. New York: Avon Books, p. 73.

4 Lahr, John. 2000. Making it Real: Mike Nichol’s improvised life. The New Yorker. February 21 and 28: 196-214, p. 204. There is some confusion in the record about precisely what was said in the train station. In the Sweet interview, Nichols says that he used a German accent. Lahr says nothing of this but suggests that May replied with a Russian accent. This may have been the two sides of the improv, but it seems to me more likely that Nichols spoke, and May replied, in a German accent. This was after all their first date.

5 My account of the beginning of improv indulges itself in a mythic language and a fuller account can be found in the opening essay “History” in Sweet, Jeffrey. 1978. Something Wonderful Right Away: an oral history of the Second City and the Compass players. New York: Avon Books, p. xv-xxxiii

We are not a family!

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When asked to describe a company, the CEO will almost invariably give us an ingratiating smile and say, “We’re a family.”

Employees are also tempted by the metaphor, and in happier moments, they will enthuse, “this really is my family.”

The truth is painfully otherwise.  The organization will use the employee as long as it suits and then jettison this employee without a flicker of remorse.   And often not even so much as an explanation.  One day you’re there.  The next day you’re gone.

Try that with your family.   “Dad, I’m sorry but you’re fired.  Mom, you have to go too.  We’re cutting back.  What, no, of course we’re sorry.  You’ve done a great job.  But things change.  We want you out of here by end of day.  And we’re going to need your ID  back.  Hand it over.”

“Firing” and “family” never intersect in our culture.  Ever.

I’m not complaining about the fact that people get fired.  Organizations are good at getting things done precisely because we try to stock them with all but only the people they need.

I am complaining about this ugly “family” fiction.  And it’s not just a problem of the group-think, conscious-bending, reality-concealing metaphor. (Though this should be objectionable on its own.)

I’m complaining about the use of the family metaphor to extract  value from employees.  Of course, you’ll give up your weekend, your vacation, your evenings and your personal lives.  We’re a family!  This is what families do for one another.  When used for these manipulative, value boosting purposes, the metaphor is no longer merely malicious, it’s now a deliberate, exploitative, lie.

So Mr. Smarty Pants Anthropologist, what’s the alternative?    I think it’s to define the corporation the way we do a graduate or professional school.

The first assumption  is that you the employee are passing through.  You will learn from what you do here, and move on.  You will work heroically hard but that’s because you are working to improve and get better.  As you do at a graduate or professional school.

We will treat you decently because, well, you are passing through.  And you will go out into the world, and speak ill or well of us.  You will help recruit the next class.  Or you won’t.  In fact, in a perfect world, you will pass through several jobs and return us.

The important thing is that superordinates are encouraged to understand the real relationship they have with a subordinate.  This person is not a member of a family.  This is not an enduring relationship.  We’re not “all in this together.”  Someday this relationship will end.   And we hope you will be better for it, not used up by it.  That’s in a sense is what we are here for.

This doesn’t create a symmetrical relationship, nor should it, but it could help discourage the practice of giving employees big, friendly hugs…while rummaging through their personal effects.

photo:

This is a library at the University of Chicago, blanket like, but covered in snow.  Now that’s a metaphor.

post script

Thomas Stewart has a wonderful essay on the “team” metaphor in Fortune here.

Culturematic II: the nuts and bolts

(please read yesterday’s post before reading this one)

The point of the Culturematic is that it can “think” things we cannot.  

Barry Bonds and David Brooks, these two people are worlds away.  I would submit that there are virtually no naturally occurring circumstances in which their names would appear together.  

More to the point, they are disparate elements in a very diverse culture, so that even if we were to find these names sitting together, we would dismiss this as noise.  Actively making a conjunction between them?  Unthinkable.  No, really, I mean this literally: unthinkable.  

What I needed then was a simple program that would make random combinations.  I can’t program.  I don’t even know the basics of HTML.  (Sad, really, but there you are.)

So I was going to have to find one on line.  It took all of Saturday and most of Sunday, hunting first for the right search terms and then for the code.

Eventually I found The Virtual Professor.  This is a wonderful invention of someone at the University of Chicago Writing Program.  The VP creates spectacularly inflated pieces of academic rhetoric.  The author claims his/her intent is not rhetorical.  Hmm.

I lifted the code from TVP and I downloaded a trial version of Adobe Dreamweaver.   So now I was working with code I did not understand on a program I did not know.  

First, I replaced TVP noun list with the following

Noun = new Array();
Noun[0] = “Mel Gibson”;
Noun[1] = “Hulk Hogan”;
Noun[2] = “Bono”;
Noun[3] = “Barry Bonds”;
Noun[4] = “David Letterman”;
Noun[5] = “Hillary Clinton”;
Noun[6] = “Martha Stewart”;
Noun[7] = “Tyra Banks”;
Noun[8] = “Janice Jackson”;
Noun[9] = “David Brooks”;
Noun[10] = “Jon Stewart”;
Noun[11] = “Tom Ford”;
Noun[12] = “Oprah Winfrey”;
Noun[13] = “Arianna Huffington”;
Noun[14] = “Mos Def”;
Noun[15] = “LL Cool J”;
Noun[16] = “Mark Harmon”;
Noun[17] = “Bryan Singer”;
Noun[18] = “Judd Apatow”;
Noun[19] = “Jennifer Lopez”;
Noun[20] = “Jon Stewart”;
Noun[21] = “Malcolm Gladwell”;
Noun[22] = “Sean Combs”;
Noun[23] = “Christopher Hitchens”;
Noun[24] = “Graydon Carter”;
Noun[25] = “Kathy Griffin”;
Noun[26] = “Barbara Walters”;
Noun[28] = “Henry Kissenger”;
Noun[27] = “Skip Bayles”;
Noun[29] = “Joss Whedon”;
Noun[30] = “Johnny Depp”;
Noun[31] = “Francis Ford Coppola”;
Noun[32] = “Tom Cruise”;
Noun[33] = “Lorne Michaels”;
Noun[34] = “Diane Swayer”;
Noun[35] = “Katy Perry”;
Noun[36] = “Quinton Tarrantino”;
Noun[37] = “Madonna”;
Noun[38] = “JJ Abrams”;
Noun[39] = “Tina Fey”;
Noun[40] = “Charlie Sheen”;
Noun[41] = “Stephen Hawking”;
Noun[42] = “Natalie Portman”;
Noun[43] = “Hugh Laurie”;
Noun[44] = “Clay Shirky”;
Noun[45] = “Tiger Woods”;
Noun[46] = “Jay-Z”;
Noun[47] = “LeBron James”;
Noun[48] = “Jennifer Aniston”;
Noun[49] = “Howard Stern”;
Noun[50] = “Glenn Beck”;
Noun[51] = “Ryan Seacrest”;
Noun[52] = “Kenny Chesney”;
Noun[53] = “Robert Pattison”;
Noun[54] = “Cameron Dias”;
Noun[55] = “Stephanie Meyer”;
Noun[56] = “Stephen King”;
Noun[57] = “Sarah Jessica Parker”;
Noun[58] = “Lil Wayne”;
Noun[59] = “Julia Roberts”;
Noun[60] = “Brad Pitt”;
Noun[61] = “Richard Branson”;
Noun[62] = “Bill Clinton”;
Noun[63] = “Lady Gaga”;
Noun[64] = “Sandra Bullock”;
Noun[65] = “Simon Cowell”;
Noun[66] = “Pink”;
Noun[67] = “Dr. Phil”;
Noun[68] = “Beyonce”;
Noun[69] = “Taylor Swift”

Not a perfect list.  I was watching the English version of Being Human on Apple TV (my birthday gift) and who knows what effect this had.  Two days later, its clear to me that this list ought to have cast the net more widely than it does.  More sports heroes, politicians, journalists, captains of industry and so on.  I mean “Rupert Murdock,” how could I miss him?

I contemplated the idea that I should combine two names and a pretext.  So I added some pretexts or “modifiers.”  As with any Culturematic, I wasn’t really sure what it was I was trying to do.  As with any Culturematic, the idea seemed to be to “try it and see.”  As I noted in yesterday’s post, one of the output here was:

Lady Gaga and Glenn Beck struggle to establish a parent-child dynamic.

And I liked this a lot.  I could engage in the wildest thought possible and it would take me years and years to think of something so successfully strange.  (The simpler option would be to take one name, not two, from my noun list.  I didn’t test this.)

But was this combo when that was useful for any useful purpose?  That will take some conjuring.  I think it tells us at least that the postmodernists are wrong when they insist things have been draining of meaning.  If this were true, this output would be less strange, less distant, less hard to put out.  

Here is my list of pretexts.  They are a bit daft.  Again remember I was watching Being Human.  (They sound now like vaguely like David Letterman “top ten” lists.  But you have to try.)

Modifier = new Array();
Modifier[0] = “trying to persuade Les Moonves to back their new show”;
Modifier[1] = “trying to set up a Fair Trade Network in South America”;
Modifier[2] = “consider swapping identities”;
Modifier[3] = “have agreed to sing the National anthem at next year’s Superbowl”;
Modifier[4] = “are thinking about buying an African nation, a small one”;
Modifier[5] = “are starting up a hip little art gallery in the NYC meat packing district”;
Modifier[6] = “are breaking into a Hershey’s factor under cover of darkness”;
Modifier[7] = “eating together in a Paris cafe”;
Modifier[8] = “fighting for a place in line outside an Apple store”;
Modifier[10] = “sharing a Glee episode”;
Modifier[11] = “going to a Harley rally”;
Modifier[12] = “join forces to fight the power”;
Modifier[14] = “ask Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to fund their Tikibar”;
Modifier[15] = “working hard on their syncopated swimming routine”;
Modifier[16] = “take to a lighthouse in Newfoundland”;
Modifier[17] = “driving an Airstream to SxSW”
Modifier[18] = “struggle to establish a parent-child dynamic”;
Modifier[20] = “fighting the tyranny of big budgets”;
Modifier[21] = “consider swapping identities”;
Modifier[23] = “are thinking about giving up tenure”;
Modifier[24] = “consider swamping identities”;
Modifier[25] = “come up with a new peace plan for the Middle East”;
Modifier[26] = “wondering why all men can’t be brothers”;
Modifier[27] = “looking for a future on reality TV”;
Modifier[28] = “surfing the conceptual drift”;
Modifier[29] = “hoping for a show of their own on ESPN”;
Modifier[30] = “in a Paris cafe”;
Modifier[31] = “working the tension between nature and history”;
Modifier[32] = “looking for their own show on USANetwork”;
Modifier[33] = “deciding who has the upper hand”;
Modifier[34] = “think we’ve been a little hard on Tiger Woods”;
Modifier[35] = “wondering how we invented pop culture”;
Modifier[36] = “have had it up to here with ‘high’ culture”;
Modifier[37] = “riding the new train to Tibet, under protest”;
Modifier[38] = “can’t decide: Antigue Roadshow or Pawn Stars”;
Modifier[39] = “putting the industry in the culture industry”;
Modifier[40] = “are thinking of going all artisanal all the time”;
Modifier[41] = “, working on new concepts of civil society”;
Modifier[42] = “thinking someone should send Charlie Sheen a fruit basket”;
Modifier[43] = “committing to post-Hegelian criticism one day at a time”;
Modifier[44] = “trying to decide which one is the Other”;
Modifier[45] = “winning, duh!”;
Modifier[46] = “mining indeterminacy”;
Modifier[47] = “think there is really something rum about the academic world”;
Modifier[48] = “in a Paris cafe”;
Modifier[49] = “sky diving together”;
Modifier[50] = “Venture capital in the intellectual world”;
Modifier[51] = “are wondering, ‘that’s what you’re going with?'”;
Modifier[52] = “think it’s perfectly ok to answer a question with a question”;
Modifier[53] = “think it’s not too late for you to become an anthropologist”;
Modifier[54] = “are building their own Culturematic laboratory”;
Modifier[55] = “wonder if Austin is still as great as it used to be”;
Modifier[56] = “Outward bound”;
Modifier[57] = “believe in disinterested observation”;
Modifier[58] = “an anthropocentric experiment”;
Modifier[59] = “rocking the Dewey Decimal System”;
Modifier[60] = “want two of the roles in Being Human”;
Modifier[61] = “sharpen their chops as master story tellers”;
Modifier[62] = “are they commodified objects? Oh, come on!”;
Modifier[63] = “embrace corporeality?”
Modifier[64] = “looking for triumph in all the wrong places”
Modifier[65] = “famous, but still looking for their mooring”
Modifier[66] = “are not sure in all comes down to factual knowledge, after all”;
Modifier[67] = “still believe in the Red Sox”;
Modifier[68] = “thinking of staring a trailer court in the public sphere”;
Modifier[69] = “went off Starbucks well before you”;
Modifier[70] = “looking for hidden messages and the secret code”;
Modifier[71] = “opening their own digital agency”;
Modifier[72] = “searching for autonomous selfhood”;
Modifier[73] = “have heard some stuff about Area 51”;
Modifier[74] = “still waiting for the Wikipedia page”;
Modifier[75] = “fighting the effects of rank prejudice”;
Modifier[76] = “think LeBron should have stayed in Cleveland”;
Modifier[77] = “thinking about switching homes and lives”;
Modifier[78] = “switched at birth!”;
Modifier[79] = “struggle to remain civil”;
Modifier[80] = “well concealed Amtrak enthusiasts”;
Modifier[81] = “treats celebrity as a contagion”;
Modifier[82] = “exploring materiality in a digtal age”;
Modifier[83] = “learning the rules of a celebrity economy”;
Modifier[84] = “searching for a narrative sequence that does not require a car chase”;
Modifier[85] = “unsafe at any speed”;
Modifier[86] = “boldly embracing romantic inwardness”;
Modifier[87] = “two words; road trip now”;
Modifier[89] = “are not binary opposites”;
Modifier[90] = “still hoping for a chance in Triple A baseball”;
Modifier[91] = “taunting the abyss”;
Modifier[92] = “think Brazil is where the future happens”;
Modifier[93] = “wish that Gen Xers would just get over it”;
Modifier[94] = “really sick and tired of enlightenment rationalism”;
Modifier[95] = “speaking the unspoken”;
Modifier[96] = “mainstreaming marginal worlds”;
Modifier[97] = “knowing the unknowable”;
Modifier[98] = “assault the market place”;
Modifier[99] = “hoping for a spot on TMZ”;
Modifier[100] = “putting celebrity gossip behind them”;

So now the hard part.  How to change the Virtual Professor Code in order to make this Culturematic.  It’s really just horrible to admit to this.  I just kept making changes in the code with the hope of producing the output I was looking for.  The Javanese have a metaphor for stupidity: a water buffalo listening to a symphony.  Consider me so.  Here’s what I “did” to the code.

function Pootwattle(){
EraseAll(document.getElementById(“Voila”));

subject = pickAny(Noun);
object = pickAnother(Noun, subject);

bookref = pickAny(BookRef);
reviewverb = pickAny(ReviewVerb);

//The sentences are constructed here:

var PootSays = “” + subject + ” ” +
verb + ” ” + object + ” ” + objmodifier + “”;

var SmedSays = “” + objmodifier + ” ” + “”;

There must be several people out there who can do better than this.  Please do better than this!

Acknowledgements

I owe thanks to three inspirations for this exercise.  

First, to Bud Caddell for showing me that the spirit, indeed, the genius, of the Victorian inventor in contemporary guise.  

Second, to David Bausola, aka “zero influencer,” for his brilliant work creating, to use the fancy linguistics lingo, “syntagmatic chains out of paradigmatic classes.”

Third, to the Writing Program at the University of Chicago.  Please would you let me know the name of the author of this program. 

Virginia Postrel was kind enough to interview me for Enterpreneur Magazine.  

You can find an edited version of the interview at Enterpreneur.com here.

For the full version of the interview in which you will find me chatty and discursive.  

 

Virginia Postrel: What do you mean by “culture”?

Grant McCracken: I was just watching the movie I Love You, Man.  It’s a funny movie, and it’s a wonderfully observed piece of anthropology.  The Paul Rudd character doesn’t understand how to act like a “guy.”  Somehow this knowledge has escaped him.  That’s what culture is: the meanings and rules with which we understand and act in the world. 

This makes culture sound amorphous and absurdly abstract, I know.  But let’s put this another way.  Culture is the very knowledge and scripts we will someday build into robots to make them socially sentient creatures.  At the moment, we’re still teaching them to climb stairs. The more difficult task is to read social situations.  Unless we’re autistic, most of us do this effortlessly and in real time.  That’s because we have this knowledge “built in.”  Notice what it will take to build it into robots.  This is programming, exact, finite, and incredibly specific programming.  Nothing amorphous or abstract about it. 

VP: What’s the biggest mistake business people make when they think about the intersection of culture and commerce?

GM: Business people think that because they can’t see it, culture doesn’t exist.  They suppose that the moment of sale consists of a rational decision, a calculation of interest, a pursuit of benefit.  But every purchase is shaped by meanings and rules.  Whether a new product finds a place in the market depends on whether and how it squares with the meanings in our heads.  Think of all the innovations that were technically brilliant but failed because the consumer “couldn’t really get a handle on them.”  This is another way of saying that the innovation was not designed or positioned in a way that made it consistent with the culture in our heads.

VP: What can a small startup without the resources to have a dedicated “chief culture officer” do to make sure it pays attention to the relevant cultural trends?

GM: Start ups have access to lots of culture knowledge.  No need to hire a guru or a cool hunter.  They can boot strap this knowledge.  (They probably do need to read Chief Culture Officer.  I can’t urge this strongly enough.  But, hey, it’s my start up.)  The thing is to formalize all that cultural knowledge we have in our heads.  Right now it’s tacit knowledge.  Like how to be a guy.  Or things we know about culture, about television, cocktail culture, the local food movement, Burning Man.  We have to get it out of our heads onto the table.  And then we have to tag the changes we see happening.  Then we need to build a big board in order to track the changes that matter to us and we have to start making estimates about when they will reach our markets.  For the culture knowledge we don’t know, the trick is to start combing media more systematically.  In Chief Culture Officer, I talk about an investment firm in NYC that keeps track of culture by having 5 people read 300 magazines.  We don’t need to hire a cool hunter or a guru to learn about culture.  We just have to pay attention. 

GM: I think Alan Moore put his finger on the problem here in Crossing the Chasm.  In the early days, tech start ups are selling to people who are savvy enough to figure out the value proposition and make the product work.  Eventually, however, we are speaking to much larger audiences and this means talking to people who don’t get tech.  Now we have to build not from what’s technically possible.  Now we have to build to what fits in the world of the consumer.  Consumers are no longer coming to us.  We must go to them.  We have to cease being an engineer for a moment and become an anthropologist.  We must find out who the consumer is, how he lives, and what will make the product make sense to him.  In a perfect world, we build a product that understands the consumer so perfectly, he or she doesn’t even need to read the manual.  We all remember our first experience with the iPhone.  It was as if the iPhone understood us so completely, it was teaching us how to use it.  This is cultural knowledge in action.

VP: Could you give us an example of a startup that beat the big guys by understanding culture?

GM: The world of carbonated soft drinks is filled with examples of start ups that managed to spot the next trend and steal a march on the big guys: Snapple, Red Bull, Vitamin Water, Odwalla, and so on.  These startups spotted the trend and rode it to glory.  They get in early and ended up owning the market.  In the book, I try to show how Snapple accomplished this miracle.  The rewards here at breathtaking.  Snapple sold to Quaker for $1.7 billion.

VP: People often say, “You can’t teach taste.” At least when it comes to business, you disagree. Why?

GM: Culture is a body of knowledge like any other body of knowledge.  Saying we “can’t teach taste” is like saying we can’t teach finance, operations, or human relations.  Of course, we can.  But of course we have lots of people in business who have a vested interest in making it voodoo.   This is the way gurus, cool hunters, and various agencies keep themselves in business.  It’s time to get culture out of the black box.  I don’t say we don’t need gurus or agencies.  For certain purposes, they can create exceptional value.  I do say that they should not be allowed to make themselves sole source for what we know about culture.  In the run up of 1990s, serial startups found that the guy who was CFO for the last startup was now CMO for the next one.  The C-Suite is filled with fast learners, with mobile learners.  We need to get culture into this mix. 

VP: A.G. Lafley is one of the heroes of Chief Culture Officer. What can entrepreneurs learn from him?

GM: He’s the guy who helped teach P&G, that great temple of marketing, that it had much more to learn about being consumer focused.  In Game-Changers, Lafley insists that the marketer must dolly back from narrow utilities to see the larger social and cultural context, to see the consumer in all of his or her complexity.  This is the corporation making sure that the product services is “not about us,” not about what the engineers can build, not about what the marketer’s can sell, not about what the corporation has traditionally done.  It’s about who the consumer is and how he or she lives.   It’s about that software in his or her heads. 

VP: What’s wrong with “cool hunting”?

GM: Cool hunting is heat sensitive.  Cool hunters only care about the latest stuff, the fads and fashion.  But culture is vastly more than this.  It is deep cultural traditions.  These traditions change, but they do so slowly.  And when they change, they do not show on the cool hunter’s radar.  Hard to know how to quantify this, but my guess is that fads and fashions make up only 20% of culture.  Slow culture is all the rest.  What kind of professional ignores 80% of his or her domain?

VP: You’re a creative, divergent thinker, yet you seek to avoid what Claude Levi-Strauss called “wild thought.” How do you balance creativity and structure, and what would you advise entrepreneurs about striking that balance?

GM: I’m Canadian, a notoriously tidy people, the Swiss of North America.  But I am prepared to go where ideas take me.  I have this from my parents and from my education at the University of Chicago.  (The latter looks a little like Lafley’s P&G.  It accepts that the exercise is “not about us,” but about the ideas.  You adapt as you must to honor them.)  I think this makes me like most entrepreneurs who know that good things happen only when wild creativity is routinized and systematized.  Entrepreneurs have range!  They are there when the big ideas happen, driving people “outside the box.”  They then find a way to rebuild the box.  They then find a way to make something actually come out of the box.  Then they find a way to put that something out in to the market where it turns into ROI.  Phenomenal!  They are very smart and very determined.  But they are also masters of many cultures. 

VP: You introduce the idea of the “lunch list” as a way to stay in touch with culture. What is it, and how would it apply to the owner of a small startup?

GM: No one can keep track of contemporary culture but there are people who really understand individual pieces of it.  The CCO solution?  Take these people to lunch.  (Or otherwise engage them.)  My editor at Basic Books, Tim Sullivan, is a great guy to take to lunch.  He will give you the world of emerging ideas. He will let you his astounding powers of pattern recognition.  Chefs, journalists, politicians, CMOs, diplomats, all can give us a glimpse of the forces shaping the world.

VP: You talk about “fast culture” and “slow culture.” What do you mean, and how do their implications for business differ?

GM: Fast culture is great churn of our culture at any given time.  Some of the fads will cool into fashion, some of the fashions will cool into trends, and some of the trends will actually stay on to become culture.  But most fad, fashion and trend just keeps going, out of our world, eventually out of memory.  As I was saying above, it is fast culture that preoccupies us most. 

But there is also “slow culture,” and these are the long standing traditions that are part of our bed rock.  These get some attention from the academics.  The historians have warmed to the idea of culture over the last 30 years especially and this has results in some very useful work.  I am just reading a book called Hotel: An American History by Andrew K. Sandoval-Strausz, a wonderfully interesting look at the hospitality industry as it has shaped and been shaped by the American culture.  We need to know about fast culture, but this is like taking a major leaguers’ stats for the season and not the career.  We need to know about slow culture too.

VP: Why would Chris Rock make a good chief culture officer?

GM: Mr. Rock knows about African American culture and he knows about non African American culture, and knows how to pass back and forth between them.  This makes him a cultural entrepreneur.  We might say he’s in the shipping business. Anyone who knows two pieces of our culture is well on his or her way to mastering the larger whole.  It’s a lot like language learning.  The second language is always the toughest.  The third and fourth come more easily. 

VP: How can social media tools help small businesses keep in touch with culture?

GM: Twitter and Facebook are great ways to listen in on the conversation and to engage in it.  I recently did an interview with Bud Caddell at Undercurrent and I liked his idea that you have to keep provoking the world with comments, suggestions, and experiments.  The reactions will give us a sense, a kind of GPS signal, of where we are, of what’s happening “out there.”

VP: Does being Canadian give you an advantage as an anthropologist?

GM: An American journalist asked Martin Short why it was so many American comedians were Canadians by birth.  Shore said, “Oh, that’s because you grew up watching TV.  I grew up watching American TV.”  My sister and I used to watch Saturday morning cartoons.  We enjoyed them immensely, but there was always a small sense that we were watching something from another world.  Now that we are a diverse society everyone has access to a difference of this kind.  As a culture we are so decentered that everyone has an exceptional point of view. 

VP: How much TV do you watch every week?

GM: I watch the national average, plus I have friends who are not as diligent as they should be, so I watch their hours too.  As a civic gesture.  TV is a wonderful listening device for our culture.  The networks and cable run out a constant series of experiments (aka, new shows) and these shows are so expensive that choice are made with great care.  Which is another way of saying the experiments are very carefully crafted.  Then the TV view audience votes with their viewership and we see, hey presto, America likes Modern Marriage and it doesn’t like the show that comes after it on ABC, Cougar Town.  It’s not impossible to draw cultural conclusions from this event. 

VP: What do you make of Lady Gaga?

GM: Lady Gaga burns brightly at the moment.  She has crafted herself in the tradition of David Bowie and Madonna, changing dramatically, vividly, and often.Indeed, Lady Gaga ups the transformational cycle.  Bowie changed several times.  Madonna changed many times. Lady Gaga appears to change with every performance.  So we can take her as a measure of the speed at which we change.  But she is also a fad struggling to stay on as a fashion and then a trend and then a fixture in our culture.  Bowie and Madonna made the cut.  Chances are she will not.  But I hope I’m wrong.  She is a vivid, interesting presence.  (The real mystery here is why the music is so utterly ordinary.  Bowie and Madona were transformational here too.)

VP: You ran a “CCO boot camp.” Who came and what did they do? Do you have plans for more?

GM: We had a great mix, people from the strategy world, the C-suite, entertainment industry, the military, designers, senior managers, grad students, a real range.   In the morning, we reviewed 6 parts of American culture.  In the afternoon, we looked at how to monitor and manage culture for the corporation.  It was amazing fun.  I am now planning to do one for a gigantic corporation.  I now have a poll on my website to see where people want the next one held.  At the moment, Boston is winning. 

Books

Brooks, David. 2001. Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. Simon & Schuster.  

Carey, John. 1992. The Intellectuals and the Masses: pride and prejudice among the literary intelligentsia, 1880-1939. London: Faber and Faber.

Docker, John. 1994. Postmodernism and popular culture: a cultural history. Cambridge. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Fitzgerald, Frances. 1986. Cities on a Hill, A Journey Through Contemporary American Cultures. Simon and Schuster.  

Florida, Richard. 2003. The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life. Basic Books.  

Fox, Kate. 2008. Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.  

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Anchor.  

Jenkins, Henry. 2008. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. Revised. NYU Press.  

Johnson, Steven. 2005. Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. Riverhead Books.  

Kamp, David. 2006. The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation. Broadway.  

Katz, Donald R. 1993. Home Fires: An Intimate Portrait of One Middle-Class Family in Postwar America. Perennial.  

Klein, Richard. 1993. Cigarettes Are Sublime. Duke University Press.  

Lamont, Michele. 1992. Money, Morals and Manners: the culture of the French and the American upper-middle class. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Long, Elizabeth. 1985. The American Dream and the Popular Novel. Routledge Kegan & Paul.  

Martin, Roger.  2007. The Opposable Mind.  Boston: Harvard Business School Press

Postrel, Virginia. 1998. The Future and Its Enemies: The growing conflict over creativity, enterprise and progress. New York: The Free Press.

Shirky, Clay. 2009. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Reprint. Penguin.

Thornton, Sarah. 1996. Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital. Wesleyan.  

Warner, W. Lloyd, J. O. Low, Paul S. Lunt, and Leo Srole. 1963. Yankee City. Yale University Press.  

Waters, Mary C. 1990. Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America. University of California Press.  

Weinberger, David. 2003. Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web. Basic Books.  

Wolfe, Tom. 2001. A Man in Full. Dial Press Trade Paperback.  

Zerubavel, Eviatar. 1993. The Fine Line. University Of Chicago Press.  

The Mystery of Capitalism

I am always surprised that no one bothers to tell the story of capitalism.

No, the stories we prefer to tell our children is that capitalism is a dangerous, soulless, relentlessly exploitative exercise.  Indeed, this story is so preferred as our received wisdom that it is exceedingly rare to hear anyone recent Adam Smith’s magical insight, that good things can and do come from people pursuing their own, sometimes narrow, objectives.

The anti-capitalism view is an ideological fixture of our education systems at every level, from grade to graduate school.  We could call it orthodoxy if it were not so much like boilerplate.  It’s not so much argued as assumed.

Capitalists are sanguine.  Apparently, they don’t feel they have to tell the story of capitalism.  Somehow capitalism will teach its own lessons.  Once people escape the magic kingdom of education, the truth will dawn.  Once they have spend a little time in the marketplace, the penny will drop.  Or, as the English like to say, "if a man’s not a Marxist at 20, there’s something wrong with his heart.  But if he is still a Marxist at 30, there’s something wrong with his head."

When Peter Robinson interviewed Gary Becker, Professor at the University of Chicago and winner of the Nobel Prize, recently, the master surprised Robinson be announcing, "Markets are hard to appreciate."   Robinson asks for clarification and Becker obliges:

"People tend to impute good motives to government. And if you assume that government officials are well meaning, then you also tend to assume that government officials always act on behalf of the greater good. People understand that entrepreneurs and investors by contrast just try to make money, not act on behalf of the greater good. And they have trouble seeing how this pursuit of profits can lift the general standard of living. The idea is too counterintuitive. So we’re always up against a kind of in-built suspicion of markets. There’s always a temptation to believe that markets succeed by looting the unfortunate."

And I think this gets at some part of the heart of the problem.  Capitalism is, as Becker says, counterintuitive.  It tells a bad story.  In fact, it isn’t a story.  It is anti-storyish.

Capitalism doesn’t have heroes.  It doesn’t have people called to higher motives.  It doesn’t have noble sacrifices for the good of others.  It doesn’t, usually, have daring action on a public stage.

No, capitalism is just has some guy who owns a handful of dry cleaning outfits in a small town in New Hampshire.  He works hard, supplies a service, pays off his loans, coaches Little League, goes to church, gets his kids through college, and spends his very few disposable hours on the golf course.

Script!  Casting!  Someone call the studio!   This is appalling.  It doesn’t matter that out of these mundane activities in lots of towns big and small, played out by millions of people across the US, something remarkable will come.  This just isn’t a story anyone wants to listen to.  So no one much wants to tell it.  Not Hollywood.  Not our mythmakers.  Not our story tellers.

The economist has spoken.  It is a little clearer why we do not tell the story of capitalism.  It just doesn’t tell very well. But if the anthropologist may join in here.  Can we at least acknowledge that there is something fabulously odd about a culture that depends on capitalism but that will not ever acknowledge it in the stories it tells itself about itself.

References

Robinson, Peter.  2010.  Basically an Optimist–Still.  The Wall Street Journal.  March 27 -28.  p. A13.

Note: This post reposted December 23, 2010.  It was lost due to Network Solutions incompetence and only just tonight resurfaced on the net.